In March of 2016, our daughter Leila Judith Grace died at 39 weeks and 4 days in the womb. She was stillborn four days later. My husband and I were plunged into a world we had only heard about from a distance. Involuntarily, we became members of a sad solidarity of parents who carry around the hidden grief of a child who has departed this earth.
Leila’s death was five years ago. I still have a lot to learn from the Lord as I work through his sore providence. But as I reflect, seven truths have helped to lift my eyes heavenward, seven truths I would like to share with any mother walking through a similar valley of grief and pain.
So to you, dear sister in Christ, I’m so sorry that we share this great sadness in common. I wish it weren’t so. I hope these truths help you to keep fighting to live by faith, and not by sight, as you lament the death of your precious child.
1. It wasn’t your fault.
If you’re anything like me, you have replayed the days before your child’s death in vivid detail, wondering what you could have done to prevent it. What could you have done differently? The Bible’s answer is clear: nothing!
“Your baby’s days were irrevocably written in God’s book before he or she was even conceived.”
Psalm 139 tells us that your baby’s days were numbered before they came into being: “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). Before God knit Leila together in my womb, he had ordained that her life was only for the womb — 277 days. Nothing I could have done would have altered the eternal plans of God, even though I have often wished to go back in time and give it a try. “Nothing takes place save according to his appointment,” John Calvin once said (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.17.11). Satan would love for you to doubt the truth of God’s word, but the path of “what if . . . ?” leads to guilt, devastation, and hopelessness. Your baby’s days were irrevocably written in God’s book before he or she was even conceived.
2. Your baby is safe.
Maybe we think that the safest place for babies is in their mother’s arms. And how our arms ache to cradle our babies! Never has emptiness felt so heavy. But even if we were granted that privilege, we wouldn’t be able to protect them from the dangers of this fallen world.
Instead, our babies were called straight into the arms of Jesus, to a place where “the wicked cease from troubling” and where “the weary are at rest” (Job 3:17). Of course, knowing they are safe doesn’t take away the current anguish of living without them. But never will we need to worry about our children in any way — in fact, we don’t even need to pray for them. Their pilgrimage in this fallen world is over, and they are
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
safe from corroding care,
safe from the world’s temptations,
sin cannot harm them there.
3. You will see your baby again one day.
When King David’s son died, he said with confidence, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). When we lowered Leila’s body into the grave, I put the first handful of soil on her tiny white coffin. “See you soon,” I whispered through tears, clinging to God’s covenant faithfulness with an even better hope than David’s. I had been helped toward such confidence by a line in the Canons of Dort:
[Christian] parents have no reason to doubt the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy. (1.17)
Of course, our babies gained access to heaven only through Jesus, whom they needed as much as any other sinner. They too needed to be washed, sanctified, and justified by the blood of Christ, and if we are united to him by faith, then one day we will see them again.
4. Though short, your baby’s life was valuable.
It is hard to imagine how our world could have a lower view of life in the womb than it does right now. A baby’s life is viewed as disposable at any stage of development. But we know that our babies’ lives were precious from conception because they were made by God: “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
The image of knitting brings to mind a focus on intricate detail and a careful creation of something beautiful. It doesn’t matter at what point during or after the pregnancy our babies died, how developed they were, whether or not they had medical complications — they were still God-reflecting, soul-possessing people whom he intimately formed, and therefore they were precious in his sight.
5. God will hold you fast.
Five years ago, when the sonographer said the harrowing words, “I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat,” my husband and I felt like the bottom of our world gave way. We were in free fall. But a friend sent us Deuteronomy 33:27: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” You may not always feel held, but your feelings don’t change reality — in Christ, his arms are always underneath you.
So lean the full weight of your sorrow into them; there is no grief too heavy for him — he will hold you fast. As your heavenly Father has promised,
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
6. Even though your child isn’t with you, you are still a mother.
Right now you may not have much to show for your motherhood. No diapers to change, no baby clothes to wash, no nursing to be done — all agonizing reminders of what you have lost. But a live birth or a surviving child does not make you a mother: if your child’s life began at conception, then so too did your motherhood. And the death of your child does not undo that reality.
In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus witnesses the funeral procession of a young man, Luke describes the young man as “the only son of his mother” (Luke 7:12). Jesus, having compassion on the mother, tells the man to “arise.” Luke continues, “And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother” (Luke 7:15). In life and in death, this woman was his mother. And in resurrection life, Jesus gave her back her son.
The world may forget you are a mother to your child. Even those close to you may forget (unintentionally) to mention your baby’s name, or to include him or her in a birth order. But God will never forget. In life, and in death, he views you as your child’s mother.
7. Your baby’s story isn’t complete yet.
The separation of body and soul was never more real to me than when I was holding my daughter’s lifeless body in the hospital. Up until that point, I thought that somehow Leila must already be with Jesus, bodily. And yet, here was her very real body in my arms — all seven pounds of it — the same very real body that would soon lie in a tiny coffin and be buried in a grave. That’s when it struck me that Leila’s story was not yet complete. Yes, she was with the Lord, which was “far better” (Philippians 1:23), but it wasn’t yet best. She was, and still is, awaiting her resurrection body — her glorious, new-creation, imperishable body.
“You may not always feel held, but in Christ, his arms are always underneath you.”
Our children’s life, death, and resurrection patterns that of the Lord Jesus, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). On the cross, Jesus’s final words to his Father were “into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46), but as we know, his body was committed to the grave. His soul and body were separated on Friday evening until Sunday morning, when he rose from the dead.
So too, when our babies died, their souls went immediately to heaven, but their bodies went to the grave. To mark this already-but-not-yet part of Leila’s story, we had three words engraved on her coffin: “Awaiting the Resurrection.” However you laid your baby to rest, he or she is awaiting that same resurrection, when “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:52). On that day, our children will hear the voice of our Savior calling their name, and saying, “Come forth.” Then, and only then, will their story be complete.
So, dear sister in Christ, as we grieve for our little ones, let us do so with hope, fixing our eyes on the risen Lord Jesus. For one day he will reunite us with our children on another shore and in a greater light. That day is coming. As Samuel Rutherford wrote in a letter to a grieving mother, “Prepare yourself; you are nearer your daughter this day than you were yesterday.” Every day is one day closer to seeing your child again.